Dr Stewart Hase - Psychologically Speaking
Personal growth rises from the ashes of adversity
On a recent trip to Invercargill in the land of the long white cloud we had a sudden cold snap a frequent occurrence at the bottom end of South Island with nothing between it and Antarctica when the wind turns from the south. I had gone for a jog along the waterfront and was sitting in my car waiting for the driving rain to stop and thinking about going to the pub for a scotch or two instead. On some rocks in front of me sat a jumbled mass of feathers all pointed into the wild wind and rain. The birds looked just miserable and with nowhere much to go; there was no escape. It got me thinking about suffering and Ive been grappling with what it means for a while.
Buddhist philosophy says that we only learn from suffering and I think this is true; mind you Id personally be prepared to stay ignorant than experience some of the things that have happened in my life. But we do seem to make the best changes when we face adversity of some kind or another and we certainly can learn more about ourselves and to be more resilient if we are open to the experience. I think, though, that there are different levels of suffering. There is suffering which is normal and there is suffering that is over-the-top, overpowering and needs special intervention. I want to talk about normal suffering here.
Harry Freeman, a notable and local psychiatrist, once wrote a beautiful piece for a newsletter aimed at GPs in this area. He talked about how easily we medicalise suffering. What he meant was that we somehow treat as abnormal feelings caused by what are really expected and normal negative life experiences. When we abnormalise the normal we create all sorts of direct and subtle ways to prevent people from working through their experience of feeling sad, fearful, angry and lost. Somehow our society doesnt tolerate suffering, even if it is normal and expected; we live in a quick fix world that doesnt allow waiting for things to happen in their own good time. Hence the opportunity to grow and learn can be lost. Just because someone cries it doesnt mean they are depressed or somehow ill, uncomfortable as it might be for everyone. It is interesting that studies have shown that children who experience some adversity (not abuse or other dreadful things but some tough, manageable things they need to negotiate) when growing up become more resilient adults than those who live in a more protected environment.
I hear all sorts of horrible stories of peoples experiences as they struggle to find meaning in what has happened and this is part of the process I think. But the most powerful thing that I can sometimes say to these people is that I am not surprised they are feeling anxious, sad, or angry given what is happening to them. And they are then surprised to think that what is happening to them is normal. Yes, it can be really scary to feel these strong emotions when bad things happen and we can sometimes be surprised at our reaction and how out of control we feel. Sometimes, like the birds facing the cold wind and rain, we just have to trust ourselves and weather the storm.
Having said all this there are times when professional help and sometimes medication is needed and it is not a sign of weakness at all but what I would call unmanageable suffering that has its own special causes and characteristics.
Stewart Hase is an Associate Professor at Southern Cross University.